Farming at the White House

When the Crawford family was recruited to help Michelle Obama grow her vegetable garden, they got a close look at the frustrations and thrills of politics.
First Lady Michelle Obama at work in the White House vegetable garden (Chuck Kennedy/White House)

When it comes to statecraft, it’s better to be a hunter than a gatherer. Our current political dramas are red in tooth and claw: Frank Underwood whips his votes and smothers his opposition on House of Cards, and Olivia Pope oversees a grisly carnival of murder and machinations on Scandal. 24 will restart soon, and the great game of geopolitics will again be reduced to smashed kneecaps and busted noses. Ruthlessness has a mandate.

My dad is a farmer, a profession not generally known for being coldblooded, but a few years ago the White House called and asked if he would help the administration. Barack Obama had just been elected and the first lady needed help growing a garden on the lawn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. My dad jumped at the opportunity.

My parents, Jim and Emeline Crawford, have been farming vegetables organically for 40 years. The farm is in Pennsylvania, but they sell most of their vegetables in Washington, D.C., both at farmers’ markets and wholesale to restaurants, co-ops, and natural foods stores, so they’ve had their share of contact with politicians. Walter Mondale came to our market in Cleveland Park to shop for tomatoes, and Al Gore watched his son play football against my high-school team. My parents’ customers populate late night C-SPAN and offer congressional testimony to empty galleries.

My father had actually considered politics before becoming a farmer. He was a casual activist in college, trying to convince football players and debutantes at Rice University of the need for racial justice, and he’d almost been a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War. Instead, he was sent to the Naval Language Institute in Monterey, California, where he graduated at the top of his class. At first it looked like he’d avoid deployment, but then he was denied security clearances, partly because of his early activism, so they sent him to Vietnam anyway. Years later I was talking to a woman in San Francisco whose father had also been at the Naval Institute. “Oh, your dad must have been training to be a spy,” she said. She seemed so certain that I felt a little naïve. I never asked him about it.

The political stakes were higher by the time he came home in 1970, and he moved to Washington and joined a group of officers organizing against the war. He got more involved and consequently angrier, and eventually he resigned his officer’s commission. He left for Russia soon after his discharge to take part in an educational program.

When he came home he went to work for Representative Bella Abzug and was briefly courted by Marty Peretz to work as a political organizer, but he decided on law school instead. He lasted a year before he started farming. His political activism was all in the distant past by the time he went to work for the White House. My dad still had strong convictions, and he was a fierce supporter of Barack Obama, but by 2009, vegetables were his life’s work.

* * *

I was living in Boston at the time, and my dad called to tell me. I could hear my mother yelling in the background: “I just want Michelle to invite us to dinner! That’s it!”

It’s hard to describe exactly how this felt. The country was still in its deep post-election swoon, and being tapped to help this president, even in a tiny way, seemed like an invitation to join history.

My dad went to meet the White House chef—a young guy named Sam Kass who had already been working with the Obamas for years—at a Greek restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. There would be important political considerations for this garden. My father had to keep his role completely secret, and the messaging from the White House—the optics—had to be crystal clear.

My dad was asked to provide seedlings from our greenhouse, help adjust the soil quality, offer some tips about pest control, and generally advise. When he got home that night my dad made a sketch of the layout of the plot, reviewed different varieties of vegetables, made a chart of the ideal planting times and a list of the tools they’d need.

The first time he visited the White House, he looked at the grassy patch where the garden would go. He dug up the dirt in a few spots and kicked the clumps apart to try to get a sense of what the soil was like—fine but somewhat overworked. He looked at the surrounding trees to judge how the shade would fall, and at the slope of the land to make sure there wouldn’t be any issues with drainage.

A week later a local man drove down our dirt road with a backhoe. He lumbered up past the barn, scattering barn cats as he went, and swayed and rumbled down to the farm’s bottom land along the creek and filled his dump truck. He drove down to Washington that afternoon and dumped our dirt on the White House lawn.

In the first days of April my father went back to plant the first seedlings—marked in our greenhouse with little plastic tags that said “White House.” He called my mother on his cell phone when he was done and said that and he could hear the Marine Corps Band practicing in the distance, and that Obama’s new dog, Bo, was rolling around in the newly turned dirt.

Presented by

Arlo Crawford is a writer based in San Francisco and the author of A Farm Dies Once a Year. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Gastronomica.

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